In Another Woman’s Shoes

White Ribbon Alliance’s Brigid McConville remembers Felicity Ukoko

Pictured: Felicity Ukoko, WRA Champion.

You are in labour. The pains have been going on a long time. Is your unborn baby still alive? What is that gush of warm liquid — could it be blood? You don’t know, because you have been sitting for hours on a wooden bench in a long line of women also in need of help. Now and then a midwife comes out and looks — at the feet of the women waiting with you. Why is it some are chosen ahead of others, ahead of you?

Those with shoes are getting help. Those without are not.

You don’t blame the midwife; this is Zimbabwe and you know she probably hasn’t been paid for months. Mothers have to bring money to cover basic costs. The barefoot ones clearly don’t have any cash.

Felicity Ukoko told me this story. Did she herself wait on that bench where a pair of shoes could make the difference between life and death? Certainly, her first daughter was born in Zimbabwe and Felicity nearly died of a post-partum haemmorage.

Pictured: Felicity Ukoko, WRA Champion, with Davina McCall.

Felicity’s second daughter was born at a London hospital where a kind, respectful midwife sat down with her, explained things, truly cared. She knew then that this is what she would do for the rest of her life — help other mothers. She said that the training she received at St George’s Hospital in London was inspiring; it made her understand what it means to be a midwife — literally to be ‘with woman.’

Felicity believed wholeheartedly that whoever we are, wherever we come from, we all have equal rights to decent and respectful maternity care. No woman, rich or poor, is less important than any other, not in Zimbabwe, not in London. And that’s why she became a Champion for White Ribbon Alliance.

Pictured: Felicity Ukoko with Sarah Brown — WRA’s Global Champion, Brigid McConville and Davina McCall.

Maybe it was her on that bench, maybe it wasn’t. It doesn’t matter. Felicity had such empathy that injustice to any woman was an affront to her. She truly walked in other women’s shoes.

She heard about the White Ribbon Alliance’s campaign for Respectful Maternity Care in Africa and Asia, and she decided to introduce it into the UK’s National Health Service. It was a potentially thorny task, holding colleagues to account for their behaviour, demanding respect and dignity for every expectant mother. But her fellow midwives adopted it with passion and professional pride. Felicity could make change happen with her wonderful smile, coupled with formidable persistence and networking skills.

Pictured: Felicity Ukoko, WRA Champion. #Dreams4birth

Then WRA invited her to speak on International Women’s Day at the Royal College of Nurses in London, alongside TV celebrity Davina McCall and our Global Patron Sarah Brown who has paid her this tribute:

“Felicity was a passionate and dedicated advocate for maternal health and used her voice to speak up for more vulnerable isolated women who would not otherwise be heard. She brought her personal warmth and genuine feeling for a better world for mothers to have safe pregnancy and childbirth, and worked tirelessly to make this a reality.”

As Sarah witnessed, Felicity’s talents shone at that event, and she went on to work for a better world with White Ribbon Alliance in Zimbabwe and then in Nigeria with the Wellbeing Foundation. Nearly a decade later she gave me her top tips for being a midwife advocate:

“Identify key players and work with them. Galvanise support and ensure everyone understands what is to be achieved. Unite and speak with one voice and demand to be treated fairly. Influence policy makers. Promote accountability at local, national and global levels. Put pressure on leaders to take action. Be positive and have gallons of enthusiasm. Believe in the cause. When we all come together, we can do anything. Midwives are special.”

Felicity, you were very special.

If you would like to hear more about IWD, here is a link to Felicity speaking about it:

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Inspiring and convening advocates to uphold the right of all women to be safe and healthy before, during and after pregnancy.